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  • jrblackburnsmith


Growing up, my brothers and I had a love-hate relationship with fireworks. We loved them and our neighbors hated them. The truth was, we loved playing with anything that could explode into a giant ball of fire. You really haven't lived until you have started a campfire with a cup of gasoline and a black powder fuse. We came home from more than one camp out with singed eyebrows. Luckily, we kept all our fingers.

When you are free to roam the countryside in the middle of the night --because you're 'camping out'-- and you have packs of firecrackers, someone is going to be unhappy. It wasn't us. The key to success was to hike a long way from home, maybe a mile, maybe two, across the fields so no one sees you, and then work your way back home. The riskiest move was lighting the fuse on an entire pack and dropping it on someone's front porch. You had to be sure to pick house with no outside dogs or they would give you away before you got close enough to have any fun. You also had to understand the geometry of stupidity. You didn't hit every house, or even two houses in a row. You had to hop and skip your way back home like a tornado. And if you saw a Sheriff's car, you had to retreat into the fields and give up for the night. The rules were self-evident, and we followed them religiously.

Until Alabama.

When I was in 7th grade, we rented a motor home and drove to Florida for the winter break. Of course, we drove through Tennessee and Georgia so we stocked up on fireworks whenever we could. The trip was a blast. I saw the ocean for the first time, found a dead baby shark on the beach, saw my first bald eagle in the wild, and even went to Disney World. Tip: We went on Christmas Day because who would go then? Even in 1974, the park set an attendance record that day. On our way home, we went through Alabama and stopped for the night at my mom's college roommate's home. They owned a ranch and raised beef cattle. They also had two boys, about the same ages as Andy and me, and a fishing cabin a few miles from their home, on the edge of a broad river. We were given permission to camp out at the cabin as long as we stayed in the cabin after dark. Parenting tip: don't give your kids rules that you know they will break, like 'don't leave the cabin.' Do your job: show up every hour for a while and let us know you are watching.

So now we had six boys, ages 16 to 10, hundreds of firecrackers, and no supervision. What did anyone think was going to happen? We set off a couple of hours after dark. The river was very broad, perhaps a third of a mile, and we crossed it on a long, narrow concrete bridge. The road was set on a levee that sat 15 feet above the surrounding fields on one side, although the homes on the other side of the road were much closer to level with the road. When we reached the far side of the bridge, we immediately slipped down the levee, because the first house was right at the end of the bridge.

Now they did things differently in Alabama, and since we didn't know where we were going or how to get back home, we let those boys take the lead. So rather than hiking to the end of the line and working our way home, we started setting off the firecrackers right there, at the first house on the other side of the river. It was still great fun. We also hit every single house (they were a few hundred yards apart) we came to, skipping none. We had probably made it a couple miles from the cabin before we stopped. I think we would have gone on until morning --we had a lot of firecrackers-- but the last house we hit was expecting us, and as soon as those firecrackers stopped exploding, a man came out of the house with a shotgun and fired two shots into the air.

As we ran back down the road towards the bridge, we could see the lights coming on in the house we had to pass, and in fact, the lights came on in every house we could see. That sent us scrambling down the levee and into the fields, far enough from the road we couldn't be spotted. We could see a car slowly patrolling the road. The car had a spotlight, like police cars do, and was scanning the countryside for any sign of us. As time passed, things seemed to die down, the car disappeared from the road, and we made our way back towards the cabin, laughing. When we reached the river, we had to walk back to the levee and crawl up it to the road. At the top of the levee, right across the road, maybe fifty feet away, was the first house we had hit. A man was sitting on the porch, smoking a cigar, gun across his lap. To our right, a pickup truck was parked across the bridge, blocking the road. We could see the little handheld spotlight they had been using to search for us. We were definitely in trouble.

We scrambled down to the field and walked a quarter mile from the road. It was probably close to midnight, so we had a choice to make. We could wait for the men to give up or wade across the river. Our hosts were clearly in favor of escaping through the river. (We didn't know it at the time, but the houses we had set off firecrackers at were all people who worked on the ranch. They were afraid of someone calling their parents getting caught away from the cabin.) We ended up wading across the river. It was broad and slow moving, with little islands everywhere, and deep enough the water came up to the middle of my chest. My brother Joel, the 10-year-old, had water up to his chin.

The weirdest part was the soft barking sounds we could hear all around us, almost like a chuffing noise. It was distinctive, and not a sound we recognized. We were worried someone had set their hunting dogs loose along the edge of the river, but our hosts reassured us. "Those aren't dogs," they said. "They're alligators."

I don't know about you, but I would have preferred the dogs.

We finally made it back to the cabin and settled in for the night, building a fire to dry our clothes. About thirty minutes after we got back, a vehicle came down the long dirt road to the cabin, stopping a dozen feet from the door. My brother Andy threw his boot against the wall and shouted through the open screen door. "Get away! We've got a gun in here."

"You boys okay?" my dad called out. "We had a call you might be in trouble."

Of course, we assured them we were fine and we had no idea why someone would have called them. We left the next morning, and I never saw those brothers again. We also never told our parents what had really happened that night (they didn't ask, either.) I think we're just lucky that we had left all the Roman candles and bottle rockets in the RV. I can't imagine how much more trouble we would have had if we had been setting those of as well.

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